Minnesota Landowner Faces Trial Over Nephew’s Near-Drowning

(CN) – A Minnesota man must face a claim that he is responsible for the near-drowning of his 4-year-old great nephew, the state’s highest court ruled, reversing a lower court’s decision that the boy should have known it was too dangerous to swim alone.

Amanda Joe Carlson Senogles left her children Shawn, 4, and Bear, 3, with her mother one weekend in 2013. The children attended a family birthday party at the home of their great-uncle, Peter Carlson, according to court records.

With the temperature near 90 degrees, Shawn and other children at the party wanted to swim in the Mississippi River. Carlson agreed to take them.

After 20 minutes in the river, the swimmers returned to the house. Shawn played basketball while others played games in the yard.

Family members later realized that Shawn wasn’t around. They returned to the river and found Shawn lying face down in the water.

Shawn was able to be revived, but he suffered severe brain damage.

Senogles sued Carlton for breaching his duty of care to his guests. She claims that he failed to supervise Shawn and prevent him from going to the river.

Carlton moved for summary judgment, arguing that the river’s dangers were obvious to a 4-year-old child.

The trial court ruled in Carlson’s favor, finding Shawn’s injury was not foreseeable. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling for a different reason: that the danger was obvious to Shawn.

However, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the ruling last week in a 4-3 decision and remanded it for trial.

Justice David L. Lillehaug framed the case with the following question: “Was the danger of returning to the Mississippi River to swim alone known or obvious to Carlson’s 4-year-old guest, and, even if it was, should Carlson have anticipated the harm to Shawn?”

Lillehaug found that an issue of fact remains regarding Shawn’s swimming experience, which the parties disputed.

He also cited the “attractive-nuisance” portion of Minnesota tort law, which includes cases in which “the possessor knows that children too young to appreciate such dangers are likely to trespass on his land.”

Lillehaug added that even if Shawn knew about the danger of swimming alone in the river, Carlson would owe him a duty if Carlson should have anticipated the injury.

“Carlson hosted a party with lots of children at a property with access to 76 feet of riverfront on a 90-degree sunny day,” Lillehaug wrote. “Carlson had no explicit plan to supervise the children or furnish them with life jackets, even though he owned several.”

Therefore, Lillehaug called the issue of foreseeability “a close one to be decided by a jury.”

Justice G. Barry Anderson dissented from his colleagues.

“It is unnecessary for a jury to decide this case because the material facts are undisputed,” he wrote. “The Mississippi River is an obvious danger and there was no reason to anticipate the injury despite this obviousness. Therefore, I respectfully dissent.”

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